Victor Papanek

The Politics of Design

Design is much more than just giving form to something. It is part of a larger social structure and thus can be a tool for political change. This was the approach of the designer, author, and activist Victor J. Papanek (1923 – 1998), who anticipated an understanding for design as a force for social good that is more relevant today than ever. Fleeing Nazi persecution in Vienna, Papanek emigrated to the United States in 1939 where he became the twentieth century’s most influential pioneer of social, ecological, and politically oriented design that boomed from the 1960s onwards. A manifesto of design activism, his book »Design for the Real World: Human Ecology and Social Change« (1970) has been translated into over twenty languages and never gone out of print since its original release, remaining one of the most widely read books on design ever published. In it, Papanek pleads for radical change: Instead of being in the service of mass consumption and profiteering, design should deal with the challenges of the »real world«, like those of inclusion, social justice, and sustainability.
At the heart of the exhibition lies Papanek’s extensive preoccupation with a design that lives up to its social and political responsibilities. It treats his preoccupation with the socially excluded (among which he also counted women, children, and the elderly), his commitment for the interests of areas then called the »Third World«, for ecology and sustainability, as well as for a culture of making, of creating and producing with one’s own resources. Besides exhibits from Papanek’s life and work including both original design objects as well as reproductions, original photographs, illustrations, and drawings, the exhibition will include contributions from major contemporaries such as George Nelson, Richard Buckminster Fuller, Marshall McLuhan, and the radical design group »Global Tools«. These references will be complemented by work of contemporary designers and artists from in the fields of critical design, social design, and transition design, showing Papanek’s huge impact on the design world of today.

This exhibition is a cooperation between the Vitra Design Museum and the Barcelona Design Museum, in collaboration with the Victor J. Papanek Foundation, University of Applied Arts Vienna, and is funded by the German Federal Cultural Foundation.

600 – 1,000 m² / 6,000 – 10,000 sq ft

Amelie Klein, Vitra Design Museum
Prof. Alison Clarke, Victor J. Papanek Foundation, University of Applied Arts Vienna

Detailed information

Exhibition tour
29.09.2018 – 10.03.2019, Vitra Design Museum, Weil am Rhein, Germany
30.10.2019 – 02.02.2020, Barcelona Design Museum, Spain
14.03.2020 – 07.06.2020, Z33 House for contemporary art, Hasselt, Belgium

For further information please contact




Installation view © Vitra Design Museum,  photo: Norbert Miguletz
Victor J. Papanek »The Minimal Design Team«, section from Big Character Poster No. 1: Work Chart for Designers, 1973, drafted in 1969 © University of Applied Arts Vienna, Victor J. Papanek Foundation
Victor J. Papanek and James Hennessey »Lean-To Chair«, pictured on manuscript page of Nomadic Furniture 2, 1974 © James Hennessey and  University of Applied Arts Vienna,  Victor J. Papanek Foundation
Victor J. Papanek in Buffalo, NY, April 1959 © Donation from Nicolette Papanek, courtesy Victor J. Papanek Foundation
Installation view © Vitra Design Museum, photo: Norbert Miguletz